I’ve written about ABC Classic FM’s Countdowns before (here, for example), and it has just concluded a Countdown in which listeners nominated music that came from’Baroque and Before’ — which is essentially all music prior to 1750, when Johann Sebastian Bach died. What exactly is ‘Baroque’, and when did the period begin?
Conventionally, the period is 1600 to 1750, and its art is characterised by ornament, expressiveness and sometimes exaggeration. The use of ‘Baroque’ to define the period comes later, a linguistic fiat of art historians, notably the Swiss master, Jacob Burckhardt, whose work I encountered as a history undergraduate. The musicians of the era didn’t use the term themselves, and neither did the artists. It is a supremely important period in music, for just about everything we take for granted today was first invented or explored there.
When I heard what the new countdown would be about I wondered why the ABC hadn’t just settled for the ‘Best of Bach’ or something like that. After all, he is arguably the greatest composer of all time, and his works run to nearly 1100, the St Matthew Passion, which runs for three hours, being only one of them. His cantatas, about which I have written before, number more than 200, and there is not one that does not have magic moments.
But that would be a bit unfair. Georg Phillip Telemann, whose music I also greatly admire, wrote perhaps three times as much as Bach, and some of his music is no less memorable. Then there is Handel, the German who is arguably the best British composer. And then there is Antonio Vivaldi, whose Four Seasons was my introduction to the baroque period, in a magnificent LP production by Phillips featuring I Musici which I bought in 1956, I think.
I don’t go in for these competitions, but I certainly enjoy listening to the outcome. As usual, the actual Countdown occupied the June long weekend, and for us the Sunday was uniformly wet and cold, so we stayed the whole day in front of the fire and listened happily. I would have placed the Matthew Passion number one, because I think it is Bach’s greatest work, and in my judgment one of the great achievements of Western civilisation.
But you’ve got to be in it to win it, and the winnah — was Handel’s Messiah, with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons coming in second. The Matthew Passion made it to number five, which is a creditable showing in what is best seen as a popularity poll. And I would have to say that the top 100 is a pretty sensible list, all things considered.
There were some odd things in the way the list was created. Bach wrote partitas (collections of pieces to display technique or possibilities) for keyboard and for solo violin. The keyboard partitas, which were my first real introduction to his music, because I tried to learn to play them, were rolled into one work, while the violin partitas were listed separately. The two books of ‘the well-tempered clavier’ (all today’s pianos are constructed according to Bach’s determination of the best compromise in note relationships) became one work. Quite a few items were memorable songs from this or that opera or cantata, like ‘Where ere you walk’, and ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’, but such a nomination brought the whole work in. Wotthehell, archie — you have to do something to produce some order into this gigantic realm of music.
Handel got in ahead of his contemporary Bach twice in the top five with his Water Music at number four, while number three was Allegri’s Miserere, a choral item sung in the Sistine Chapel, which Mozart transcribed from memory when he discovered that he could not see the score, because that was forbidden to someone outside the Vatican.
But over at least the first 200 pieces voted for, Bach was the clear winner — 33 in the first hundred and 20 in the second. Handel came second, with 15 in the first hundred and six in the second, while Vivaldi had the same score as Handel but in reverse, his six coming in the first hundred and 15 in the second. My liking for Telemann was not shared by the large jury, for he attracted only two places in the first hundred and six in the second.
I greatly enjoyed the commentaries from musicians, who sat in with the presenters. And two performances stood out for me, Fiona Campbell’s singing ‘Dido’s Lament’, by Henry Purcell, and Barbara Jane Gilbey’s violin pyrotechnics in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. There was not to be a concert of the top five, as there often has been, and you can see that it would be difficult to bring off without a lot of expense.
But the ABC has already brought out an eight-CD set of the best of the Countdown — indeed, it was apparently available the morning after. Now that’s slick commercial work!
Oh, and who was the best composer ever? Well, I think it has to be J. S. Bach, though I think I would need another essay in which to defend my judgment.